Was it 25 years ago I first published marketing material online?

In 1985 British Airways promoted me to the grand position of Sales Information Officer. What did that mean? I don’t think anyone knew. I wasn’t sure myself.

In fact, we were a small department, a colleague and I, who had been recruited to develop the BA Prestel site into an online catalogue. Prestel was the British Telecom videotext system (like Ceefax and Oracle) but more flexible and responsive. 95% of UK travel agents used it to book package tours. BA decided that, as agents already used the system, it should develop its own site to sell scheduled air travel services to agents.

And so we set about developing what grew into a 7,000-screen online brochure with full details of the product illustrated by heavily pixelated diagrams and illustrations. I spent months creating fares tables and editing fare rules for every fare BA sold for travel from the UK to its worldwide destinations. I think the fares section ran to 2,000 pages.

British Airways Prestel: Robert Zarywacz
An article in BA’s TOPICall magazine from way back in 1985.

What seemed amazing at the time was to be able to upload pages from our PC network (an IBM AT PC with a 20MB hard disk linked to two twin-floppy IBM XT PCs) via modem down an ordinary telephone line. It seemed magical that one second the page was on my PC and the next it was accessible for anyone to view on Prestel.

It all seemed so exciting. People could even send us messages, which we printed off on a thermal printer.

But Prestel was not the way forward. Few in the airline saw its potential and both my colleague and I eventually moved to other jobs in BA.

We had been 10 years too early. Later, as the internet developed and web sites appeared, I realised that we had built a massive web site before anyone knew what it was.

I also learned a lot about writing for the small screen, on-screen attention spans and other tips that would stand me in good stead as the world moved online.

It may have been crude compared with today’s technology, but it was exciting for us as we made the rules up as we went along.

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If a picture can paint a thousand words . . .

. . . why are they all questions?

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What is that? Where is it? When was it? Why was it there? What was the point? Who did it? Is it still there? Is that an inflatable? What gas was used to inflate it? Who chose the colours? Where did it come from? Will it be there again? Is that a mountain or a hill? Is it inland or on the coast? What are those brown patches on the hill/mountain?

That’s already 15 questions in just 72 words, so just think how many questions you could ask in a thousand words.

So does that mean words are more effective for communicating than pictures?

Of course not: both are useful in different ways. A picture or photograph can grab attention specifically because people want to find out more about a stunning image. For example, the BBC England website news page often has an ‘England’s Big Picture’ feature showing a partial image to tease viewers into opening it up to see if it is what they think it is. Stunning photography or images that tease can be useful in PR and marketing to attract people to read accompanying text.

In the same way, intriguing headlines can grab readers’ attention so that they read an accompanying article or text. News papers and websites make imaginative use of words in this way and, within reason, press releases and articles can do the same, as long as they do not mislead.

So what are more effective: words or pictures?

Neither. When applied with skill, one will not be more effective but will complement the other. If anything, a great photo will be let down by lousy writing, while a well-written article can be buried by poor illustration or layout.

When they work well together, the reader won’t take any notice of the composition of a photograph or style of writing but be totally engrossed in the message they convey.

That’s certainly our aim.

Print or digital?

If we live in the digital age, why do I recycle so much printed marketing material?

Just like the myth of the paperless office, printed words and graphics still play a powerful part in marketing and communications. While the digital world offers very many useful advantages, it complements, rather than supersedes, print.

Bearing this in mind, should we still print business cards and brochures or depend totally on our online presence? The answer is: it depends.

Some businesses can quite easily forego printed material and just refer to their web presence, while others are likely to find a web site almost irrelevant. I know of one business that posts leaflets through doors before following up with a personal visit: they are achieving a good response rate without any online presence whatsoever. However, I believe that a web site would help them.

Personally, I get annoyed by printed catalogues I receive through the post, as I recycle these immediately without looking at them. I used to believe that these were a complete waste of money until recently I began leafing through a catalogue just as it was about to hit the recycling pile and spotted a very good offer for a product that I needed. I ordered the product and enjoyed a hefty discount, which I wouldn’t have been aware of if I hadn’t received the catalogue. So it did work for this supplier.

I think the best course is to review your material regularly and consider what your target audience wants. Do they want to find information and interact through a web site or do they want hard copy to read at their leisure? And what responses do you receive from online and printed materials? The answers will help you to decide whether to produce one or the other or both.

Print is still useful and should not be dismissed without serious consideration, even though digital media can often offer speed and cost advantages.

After our last blog, how are you measuring your success?

z2zine tomorrow: the difference a single letter can make

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